Daniel Okrent is best known for having served as the first Public Editor of The New York Times. He was named to this newly created position in October 2003 to act as a temporary lightning rod for public reaction to various Times scandals (including the Jayson Blair plagiarism scandal) that had come to light in 2003 and had led to the firing of the newspaper’s Executive Editor Howell Raines and Managing Editor Gerald Boyd.
“The Times [had previously] resisted an ombudsman,” wrote Scott Sherman in the The Nation in 2004, “because it wanted to preserve its status as ‘the world’s greatest newspaper’ by projecting an aura of invincibility — what Raines calls ‘the Times’s defining myth of effortless superiority.’…. The Times has always endeavored, with almost complete success, to keep criticism of itself outside its own pages. Practically by definition, the ombudsman’s job is to let the criticism in.”
Okrent’s position was, by design, temporary. It lasted 18 months (until May 29, 2005) as a measure intended to help restore the newspaper’s credibility.
Daniel Okrent was born in April 1948 in Detroit, Michigan, the son of an attorney father and social worker mother. He graduated from the University of Michigan in 1969 and moved to New York City to pursue a career in book publishing. He worked as an editor for the publishing house Alfred A. Knopf (1969-73), as editorial director for Grossman Publishers, a division of Viking Press (1973-76), and Editor-in-Chief for Harcourt Brace Jovanovich (1976-77).
Okrent was President of Texas Monthly Press, a publishing venture of the liberal journal Texas Monthly, 1978-83. He then became founding editor of _New England Monthly. _He also was a columnist for Esquire magazine from 1985-89.
Okrent went to work for Life Magazine as its Assistant Managing Editor (1992-96) and Managing Editor (1996-99). He also worked for its parent company Time, Inc. as its editor of new media (1996-99) and as an editor at large for Time Magazine (1999-2001).
Okrent has written and co-edited several books. The best known of these are The Ultimate Baseball Book (1979, 1991); Nine Innings (1985, 1994); Baseball Anecdotes (1989); and Great Fortune: The Epic of Rockefeller Center (2003). A passionate baseball enthusiast, Okrent co-founded and has been Commissioner of Rotisserie Baseball, described in his official Times biography as “the forerunner of numerous fantasy sports games.” He was among the experts interviewed in the Ken Burns 1994 documentary Baseball that aired on the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS).
Okrent played a character in the 1999 film Sweet and Lowdown directed by Woody Allen. He has been a Hearst Foundation Visiting Fellow in New Media at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and a lecturer at Radcliffe College and Rice University.
“By upbringing and habit, I’m a registered Democrat, but notably to the right of my fellow Democrats on Manhattan’s Upper West Side,” wrote Okrent in his December 7, 2003 column introducing himself to readers. “When you turn to the paper’s designated opinion pages tomorrow, draw a line from The Times’s editorials on the left side to [libertarian Republican] William Safire’s column over on the right; you could place me just about at the halfway point.” “But on some issues I veer from the non-committal middle,” Okrent continued. “I’m an absolutist on free trade and free speech, and a supporter of gay rights and abortion rights who thinks that the late Cardinal John O’Connor was a great man. I believe it’s unbecoming for the well-off to whine about high taxes, and inconsistent for those who advocate human rights to oppose all American military action. I’d rather spend my weekends exterminating rats in the tunnels below Penn Station than read a book by either Bill O’Reilly or Michael Moore.”
When he was hired as ombudsman, Okrent also wrote: “There are easier ways to make friends. Reporters and editors (the thickness of their skin measurable in microns, the length of their memories in elephant years) will resent the public second-guessing. The people who run the newspaper may find themselves wondering how they might get away with firing me before my 18-month term is up. Too many combatants in the culture wars, loath to tolerate interpretations other than their own, will dismiss what I say except when it serves their ideological interests.”
When Okrent criticized the Times for reporting its own polls as front-page news while not reporting different or contrary poll results from other news organizations, the new Executive Editor Bill Keller dismissed this criticism as “an ill-informed swipe.” Keller also told his reporters that they did not have to listen to Okrent.
“Is The New York Times a liberal newspaper? Of course it is,” wrote Okrent in its July 25, 2004 edition. Keller and Sulzberger insisted otherwise, that The Times was not “liberal” but “urban,” reflecting the superior sophistication and knowledge of New York City residents. Okrent somewhat concurred: “You can take the paper out of the city, but without an effort to take the city and all its attendant provocations, experiments and attitudes out of the paper, readers with a different worldview will find The Times an alien beast.”
Okrent used the issue of homosexual marriage as a touchstone to demonstrate Times liberalism. “For those who also believe the news pages cannot retain their credibility unless all aspects of an issue are subject to robust examination,” he wrote, “it’s disappointing to see The Times present the social and cultural aspects of same-sex marriage in a tone that approaches cheerleading…. On a topic that has produced one of the defining debates of our time, Times editors have failed to provide the three-dimensional perspective balanced journalism requires. This has not occurred because of management fiat, but because getting outside one’s own value system takes a great deal of self-questioning.”
“These are the social issues: gay rights, gun control, abortion and environmental regulation, among others,” wrote Okrent. “And if you think The Times plays it down the middle on any of them, you’ve been reading the paper with your eyes closed.”
But while he acknowledged Times liberal bias on social issues, Okrent in his October 9 column only weeks before the 2004 elections asked “Is The Times systematically biased toward either [presidential] candidate?” and answered “No.” He then added: “I will stipulate here that I’ll be voting for [Democrat] John Kerry next month.”
Okrent did not discuss (perhaps because he then did not know) that The Times and CBS News had coordinated plans to simultaneously release the same anti-George W. Bush story on the Sunday before the Tuesday election — and to thereby leave the Bush team no time to respond effectively before the polls opened. This story (which in the end was released early by Times editors afraid of getting scooped, and therefore was dropped by CBS’s 60 Minutes) accused the incumbent Republican administration of allowing terrorists to steal many tons of high explosives from a weapons depot in Iraq.
One important question Okrent raised was why approximately 40 percent of A-section stories in America’s “newspaper of record” contained anonymous sources. Fired reporter Jayson Blair, for example, had used many anonymous (and concocted) sources, and had left The Times’ trustworthiness in tatters.